Document 62469

Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy / Revue canadienne de counseling et de psychothérapie
ISSN 0826-3893 Vol. 46 No. 3 © 2012 Pages 201–220
Mindfulness for Children and Youth: A Review of
the Literature with an Argument for School-Based
Méditation de pleine conscience pour les enfants et les
jeunes: Survol de la littérature et argumentation pour
sa mise en œuvre en milieu scolaire
Kim D. Rempel
Athabasca University
Interest in the use of mindfulness-based activities with children and youth is growing. The
article evaluates empirical evidence related to the use of mindfulness-based activities to
facilitate enhanced student learning and to support students’ psychological, physiological,
and social development. It also provides an overview of interventions that include mindfulness. There is a need to provide children with a way to combat the stress and pressure
of living in today’s highly charged world: mindfulness may be one helpful alternative.
The implications of a universal school-based mindfulness intervention are discussed, and
directions for future research are offered.
L’emploi des activités basées sur la pleine conscience avec les enfants et les jeunes attire
de plus en plus d’intérêt. Dans cet article, on évalue les preuves empiriques concernant
les emplois des activités basées sur la pleine conscience qui cherchent à aider les étudiants
à apprendre et à appuyer leur développement psychologique, physiologique, et social,
ainsi qu’on fournit une synthèse des interventions qui incluent la pleine conscience. Il
est nécessaire de donner aux enfants un moyen de battre le stress et la pression du monde
surchargé d’aujourd’hui, et la pleine conscience peut s’avérer une des options utiles. La
discussion traite les implications d’une application universelle d’interventions basées
sur la pleine conscience dans les écoles et offre des conseils pour des recherches futures.
Children and adolescents are experiencing stress at unprecedented levels
(Barnes, Bauza, & Treiber, 2003; Fisher, 2006; Mendelson et al., 2010). Increasing
stress may result in anger, anxiety, depression, and externalizing behaviours (e.g.,
conduct disorder), as well as lowered self-esteem and self-confidence (Barnes et al.,
2003; Mendelson et al., 2010; Smith & Womack, 1987). Research suggests that
anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem can negatively influence students’ school
performance by disrupting their thinking and hindering their learning (Barnes et
al., 2003; Fisher, 2006; Mendelson et al., 2010). This places schools in the position
of influencing students’ social, emotional, and behavioural development in ways
that educators did not see in previous generations. Teachers need proven methods
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and strategies to assist students in coping with an increasingly challenging world.
Children and youth need strategies that will empower them and support them in
successfully navigating their world.
In this article, research investigating the use of mindfulness techniques in managing a variety of challenges faced by child and youth populations is examined. An
argument for integrating these techniques into a universal school-based prevention
program is provided, as well as directions for future research. The review begins
by providing a brief overview of the historical and theoretical underpinnings of
mindfulness and some definitions of mindfulness.
theoretical underpinnings
The definition of mindfulness is varied in nature. No one definition can claim
consistent usage. Langer and Moldoveanu (2000) suggest that it is “best understood as the process of drawing novel distinctions” (p. 1). The definition put
forward by Langer and Moldoveanu articulates that, by drawing novel distinctions or seeing things in new ways, we stay in the present. Kabat-Zinn’s definition, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment,
and non-judgmentally” (1994, p. 4), is frequently used in the literature. This
definition aligns itself with Shapiro, Carlson, Astin, and Freedman’s (2006) three
aspects of mindfulness: intention, attention, and attitude. Bishop et al. (2004)
proposed an operational definition of mindfulness that consists of two components: self-regulating attention and adopting an open and accepting orientation
toward one’s experiences. A common element in all these definitions is a focus
on attention, which is at the core of traditional Buddhist mindfulness practices
(Kabat-Zinn, 2003).
Kabat-Zinn (2003) speaks to the underlying Buddhist traditions of mindfulness
and notes that the actual practice of mindfulness is rooted in a larger framework
of nonharming. Kabat-Zinn suggests that mindfulness practices based in the
Buddhist tradition can ameliorate suffering by calming and clearing the mind,
opening the heart, and distilling attention. When practiced in the Buddhist
tradition, mindfulness is more than a tool; it is a way of being in the world and
understanding the world.
Introducing children to this practice may better prepare them for present and
future challenges. The openness and readiness to learn that many children possess
may make them receptive to learning mindfulness. Children spend a large percentage of their time in the school environment; therefore, this is an ideal setting for
them to learn mindfulness-based practices.
Overview of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a way of directing one’s attention that originates in Eastern
meditation traditions (Baer & Krietemeyer, 2006; Kabat-Zinn, 2003). When
utilizing or adapting mindfulness-based practices in secular contexts, such as
education, it is important to remember the origins and treat it respectfully. By
Mindfulness for Children and Youth
being respectful of the historical beginnings of mindfulness, future generations
will gain a greater understanding of mindfulness practice (Kabat-Zinn, 2003).
Brown and Ryan (2003) identify consciousness, with its attributes of awareness
and attention, as a core characteristic of mindfulness. According to Napoli, Krech,
and Holley (2005), the key features of mindfulness include a focus on the breath,
paying attention to the events occurring within one’s mind and body, and bearing
witness to one’s own experience. Shapiro et al. (2006) propose that development
occurs when individuals are able to broaden their perspective and see beyond their
own frame of reference.
In essence, the literature reviewed suggests that mindfulness training teaches
individuals a different way of being. While engaged in mindfulness practice, individuals pay open-minded and open-hearted attention to thoughts or events as they
unfold. Mindfulness involves paying attention to both the thoughts themselves
and one’s reaction to them. By utilizing a mindfulness-based technique such as
a body-scan meditation, individuals have an opportunity to view their reactions
simply and nonjudgementally, like ships passing on a river, rather than truths that
need to be accepted and acted upon (Williams, 2010).
why mindfulness with children and youth?
Research suggests that mindfulness training can reduce stress and improve selfconfidence, relationships with others, attention, optimism, and self-esteem (Fisher,
2006; Schonert-Reichl & Lawlor, 2010). Semple, Lee, and Miller (2006) suggest
that mindfulness-based approaches may be suitable interventions for anxiety,
depression, and/or conduct disorder. Shapiro, Brown, and Astin (2008) discuss
three ways to apply meditation to higher education that are similarly applicable
to elementary and secondary education. Mindfulness may enhance cognitive and
academic performance, manage academic stress, and affect the holistic development of the individual (Shapiro et al., 2008). Valentine and Sweet (1999) found
that mindfulness meditation increased students’ ability to sustain focused attention
even when the stimulus was unexpected.
Mindfulness-based practices appeal to children and youth because they are
self-management techniques and therefore allow them to play a key role in their
own growth and development (Semple, Reid, & Miller, 2005). When teaching
mindfulness practices, it is necessary to consider the developmental stage of potential candidates in addition to addressing differences in attentional and cognitive
abilities and interpersonal functioning (Semple et al., 2006). Teaching mindfulness
techniques to all students creates the potential for greater self-awareness, improved
impulse control, and decreased emotional reactivity to challenging events (Thompson & Gauntlett-Gilbert, 2008).
Napoli et al. (2005) posit, “the consistent reinforcement of using the mindfulness activities in each class will have long lasting effects and can filter through the
children’s school experience and personal lives” (p. 114). Schonert-Reichl and
Lawlor (2010) found that students who participated in a mindfulness education
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program saw significant increases in optimism and socially competent behaviours.
It can be argued that instruction in mindfulness-based practices will empower
children and youth and provide them with a valuable skill that they can use
throughout their lives.
Stress in the Lives of Children and Youth
Many children face a constant barrage of images and sounds in today’s technologically focused world. This constant overload can challenge children’s thinking
capacity and make learning difficult (Fisher, 2006). These stressors can increase
risk for a variety of negative outcomes in children and youth “including socialemotional difficulties, behavior problems, and poor academic performance”
(Mendelson et al., 2010, p. 985). Mindfulness-based interventions show promise
in helping children manage stress by improving self-regulation, mood, and socialemotional development (Mendelson et al., 2010).
Barnes et al. (2003) suggest there has been an increase in negative school behaviours, which is partly attributable to increased exposure to chronic psychosocial
stress in the form of family breakdown, violence in media, information overload,
and poverty. This has resulted in children and youth exhibiting increased anger
and violence, which correlates to an increase in anxiety and stress levels (Barnes
et al., 2003).
Other stressors experienced by children and youth are breakdown of relationships with friends and/or family, education and work stressors, parental divorce,
death of a loved one, and suicide (Parker & Roy, 2001). Increased stress is a risk
factor for depression, and stressful life events are predictive of less positive response
to treatment (Parker & Roy, 2001). Research suggests that mindfulness-based
training may improve students’ ability to tolerate stress (Shapiro et al., 2008). The
negative impact that stressful life events have on psychological and physiological
functioning heightens the importance of finding an effective strategy to manage
life stressors that is amenable to children and youth.
mindfulness-based interventions
Research suggests that there are a variety of mindfulness-based interventions
that are effective with children and youth (Abrams, 2007; Galantino, Galbavy,
& Quinn, 2008; Mendelson et al., 2010). These approaches include yoga, body
scan, meditation, breathing exercises, and Tai Chi, all of which may increase an
individual’s capacity for attention and awareness (Abrams, 2007; Mendelson et al.,
2010). Yoga and Tai Chi may be more appealing to youth because they combine
focused attention on the breath with movement, thus providing an outlet for
youthful energy (Mendelson et al., 2010).
Mendelson et al. (2010) utilized yoga, breathing exercises, and guided mindfulness practices in their study of the impact of mindfulness interventions on stress
in fourth- and fifth-grade students. The goal of using these interventions was to
improve the children’s capacity for sustained attention as well as increase their
Mindfulness for Children and Youth
awareness of and ability to regulate their cognitive, physiologic, and bodily states
(Mendelson et al., 2010). Participants reported that they enjoyed the intervention and noticed a decrease in their symptoms of stress (Mendelson et al., 2010).
Research also shows yoga has physiological benefits that increase resilience to
stressful events in practitioners (Galantino et al., 2008).
Napoli et al. (2005) used breath work, body scan, movement, and sensorimotor
activities in their research into whether mindfulness training increases elementary
school children’s ability to focus and pay attention. By teaching children mindfulness practices, instructors have an opportunity to teach them to accept all of their
thoughts, feelings, and behaviours without judgement (Abrams, 2007). Children
and youth who engage in mindfulness practices are able to self-soothe, calm
themselves, and become more present (Abrams, 2007).
Singh, Wahler, Adkins, and Myers (2003) developed a simple mindfulnessbased intervention, Meditation on the Soles of the Feet, that they have taught to
children, adolescents, and young adults presenting with conduct disorder and mild
intellectual disabilities (Singh et al., 2007). The rationale for this intervention is
that by shifting attention away from an anger-producing or anxiety-provoking
stimulus to a neutral point such as the soles of one’s feet, children and youth can
gain increased control over behaviours (Singh et al., 2003). Singh et al. (2007)
suggested, “By dropping the mind to the soles of the feet, the individual is able
to anchor the mind on a neutral setting event and be in the present moment”
(p. 59). Adolescents utilizing this approach reported feeling more relaxed, an
increased ability to control their behaviour, greater focus, and improved sleep
(Singh et al., 2007).
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
Kabat-Zinn (2003) developed mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) to
train clients in ancient and potentially transformative practices that would supplement their medical treatments. MBSR utilizes mindfulness-based practices as
the primary change agent (O’Brien, Larson, & Murrell, 2008). These mindfulness practices include mindful eating, body scan, sitting meditation, Hatha Yoga,
walking meditation, and mindfulness in everyday living (Baer & Krietemeyer,
2006). The developers originally planned MBSR as an 8-week educational course
designed to empower participants by encouraging them to take an active role in
their well-being. Hospitals, clinics, schools, prisons, and a number of other settings throughout the world now offer MBSR (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). Kabat-Zinn
et al. (1992) found that MBSR was an effective intervention for reducing the
symptoms of anxiety.
MBSR has been adapted for use with children and adolescents with some
success (Saltzman & Goldin, 2008). According to Saltzman and Goldin (2008),
children who have participated in a MBSR intervention show improvements in
attention, self-regulation, social competence, and general well-being. Adaptations
to MBSR for children may include shortening the meditation practices and having
a mindful eating practice at each session (Saltzman & Goldin, 2008).
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Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy
Researchers used mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) in the treatment of recurring depression (Ma & Teasdale, 2004). The premise behind adding
mindfulness-based techniques to cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is that by
learning a new way of paying attention to their thoughts, clients could reduce
their tendency for depressogenic thinking (Ma & Teasdale, 2004). MBCT is a
manualized treatment that was adapted from MBSR, thus combining aspects of
CBT for depression with aspects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (Ma &
Teasdale, 2004; Morgan, 2005).
The mindfulness-based component of MBCT involves guided or unguided
mindfulness exercises designed to increase nonjudgemental awareness of thoughts,
feelings, and emotions as they occur, which is also referred to as decentring (Ma
& Teasdale, 2004; Morgan, 2005). The theory is that by practicing mindfulness
when one begins to see a shift to more negative thinking, it is possible to disengage
from the automatic ruminative thought patterns that can increase the likelihood
of relapse into depression (Ma & Teasdale, 2004). Research into MBCT suggests
that it is effective for individuals who have experienced three or more episodes of
depression, and is most effective when environmental factors are not the cause of
the relapse (Ma & Teasdale, 2004).
However, MBCT is not just an intervention for depression; research has also
indicated it to be efficacious for generalized anxiety disorder (Evans et al., 2008).
Results from this study suggest that MBCT may be an effective intervention for
reducing anxiety and mood symptoms and enhancing awareness of moment-tomoment experiences (Evans et al., 2008). A significant finding is that participants
in the study reported feeling they had gained something of “lasting value” by participating in the study (Evans et al., 2008, p. 720). This provides further support
to the benefits of mindfulness-based practices and the benefits that practitioners
may see in various aspects of life and functioning.
MBCT has been adapted for children, and there is now a mindfulness-based
cognitive therapy for children (MBCT-C). A 12-week developmentally appropriate version of MBCT has been designed to improve self-management of
attention, promote decentring, enhance emotional self-regulation, and develop
social-emotional resiliency (Semple & Lee, 2008; Semple, Lee, Rosa, & Miller,
2010). In adapting MBCT for children, the seated breath and body meditations are shortened and mindful movement exercises are added to make it more
suitable and appealing to children (Semple et al., 2010). When considering the
developmental stage of children, it was necessary to adapt MBCT related to their
attentional capacity and stage of abstract reasoning (Semple & Lee, 2008).
empirical evidence: what the research reports
Effects of Mindfulness on Mental Health and Psychological Well-Being
The number of children and adolescents diagnosed with mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, is increasing (Farrell & Barrett, 2007; L.
Mindfulness for Children and Youth
Hayes, Bach, & Boyd, 2010; Kashani & Orvaschel, 1988; Parker & Roy, 2001).
Not only do mental health concerns appear to be on the rise, but so do incidences of childhood trauma (Gordon, Staples, Blyta, & Bytyqi, 2004; Lilly &
Hedlund, 2010). Research suggests that children who actually have a diagnosis
represent only a small percentage of the population that is coping with a mental
health issue (Farrell & Barrett, 2007). This alarming finding reinforces the need
for a universal prevention program that has shown some efficacy in treating the
whole child.
When children or youth are coping with a mental health concern, it can inhibit
their ability to disregard meaningless stimuli, which results in increased distractibility, poor organizational skills, and a decreased ability to focus on a specific
task (Shapiro et al., 2008). Increasingly, research is providing support for the use
of mindfulness-based activities to reduce mental health concerns, such as anxiety
and depression, and enhance psychological well-being (Baer, 2003; Beauchemin,
Hutchins, & Patterson, 2008; Brown & Ryan, 2003; Evans et al., 2008; Lilly &
Hedlund, 2010; Smith & Womack, 1987). In light of the acceptability of mindfulness to children, it seems a logical approach to alleviating psychological distress
and improving overall well-being.
mindfulness for trauma
Trauma experienced early in an individual’s life can increase the possibility of
experiencing deleterious psychological and physiological outcomes later in life
(Cohen, Mannarino, & Deblinger, 2006). Exposure to psychosocial trauma may
permanently alter the stress-response system and predisposes children to mental
health disorders, such as depression and anxiety (Cohen et al., 2006; Selhub,
2007). Depersonalization or feeling detached from one’s body or mind is a form
of mental escape that has been linked with childhood trauma (Michal et al.,
2007). Michal et al. (2007) studied the effect of mindfulness on the severity of
depersonalization and found a strong inverse correlation between mindfulness
and depersonalization. The authors acknowledge the limitations of this study;
however, their results are intriguing and warrant further inquiry. Abrams (2007)
suggests that mindfulness practices such as yoga, breathing, and meditation can
be useful for grounding during traumatic flashbacks.
While mindfulness practices may be useful for some people, it is important to
note that there are people experiencing traumatic stress for which mindfulnessbased practices are contraindicated (Shapiro & Carlson, 2009). Therefore, it is
important for the individual teaching mindfulness to have some history on the
participants and knowledge of when mindfulness may not be suitable.
Gordon et al. (2004) utilized mind-body skills to treat posttraumatic stress
disorder in Kosovo high school students. The interventions used in this study
included activities such as meditation, relaxation techniques, and guided imagery (Gordon et al., 2004). Gordon et al. found that mind-body skills training groups were effective in reducing symptoms of posttraumatic stress in this
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mindfulness for anxiety and depression
Anxiety has been found to be the most reported psychopathology in childhood
and adolescence (Kashani & Orvaschel, 1990; Semple & Lee, 2008; Silverman,
Pina, & Viswesvaran, 2008). Costello, Egger, and Angold (2005) report the
lifetime estimate of developing any anxiety disorder at between 8.3% and 27%.
Anxiety disorders in youth may persist into adulthood and cause considerable
impairment in many areas of life (Silverman et al., 2008). Anxiety can co-occur
with other anxiety or affective disorders as well as depression, conduct disorder,
oppositional defiant disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
(Costello et al., 2005; Simon & Bögels, 2009).
Anxiety negatively affects a wide range of behaviours, and this negative influence only increases with age, affecting inter- and intrapersonal areas (Kashani &
Orvaschel, 1990). Impaired attention is a core symptom of anxiety; therefore,
strategies such as mindfulness-based practices that work to improve students’
attentional focus may reduce anxiety in children (Semple et al., 2005). Biegel,
Brown, Shapiro, and Schubert (2009) studied the effectiveness of MBSR with
adolescent outpatients. The participants self-reported reduced symptomology
related to anxiety, depression, and somatic distress in addition to increases in
self-esteem and improved sleep (Biegel et al., 2009). Effective interventions for
childhood and adolescent anxiety are critical for improving the quality of life for
those affected.
Depression is prevalent in children and adolescents, with depression rates
of 18% overall, and 25% in females (L. Hayes et al., 2010). The likelihood of
developing depression during adolescence is increasing, and the age of onset is
decreasing (Parker & Roy, 2001). As with anxiety, depression co-occurs with
another condition anywhere from 40% to 95% of the time (L. Hayes et al.,
2010). Mendelson et al. (2010) found that the children who took part in their
mindfulness-based intervention reported less ruminating and persistent or worrying thoughts, thus positively influencing their long-term mental health.
A number of studies have been conducted that show support for the use of
mindfulness in addressing anxiety and depression (Lee, Semple, Rosa, & Miller,
2008; Semple et al., 2005; Semple et al., 2010). Semple et al. (2010) found significant reductions in anxiety in participants who presented with clinical levels
of anxiety at pretest. Lee et al. (2008) reported that MBCT-C was a feasible and
acceptable intervention that showed potential in the treatment of internalizing
and externalizing symptoms. Finally, Semple et al. (2005) found some evidence
to suggest that mindfulness-based practices are acceptable and potentially helpful
to anxious children.
mindfulness for externalizing symptoms
Twemlow, Sacco, and Fonagy (2008) studied the use of mind-body techniques
as a way of reducing destructive aggression. Their results suggest that physical
movement is a critical component of reaching youth who are historically resistant
Mindfulness for Children and Youth
to talk therapy (Twemlow et al., 2008). The purpose of the physical movement
as described by Twemlow et al. “is to provide a safe container and a healing noncoercive social context, which allows violent individuals a chance to re-tool their
experiences under the guidance of a healthy ethical role model” (p. 29). Twemlow
et al. suggest that individuals may begin training in martial or meditative arts
to heal psychological wounds as well as to increase self-discipline and spiritual
practice, and as an outlet for aggression.
Redfering and Bowman (1981) used Benson’s (1975) meditative-relaxation
technique in their intervention with children demonstrating externalizing behaviours. Their results suggest that the relaxation response can be easily learned
and practiced by behaviourally disturbed children as well as contributing to study
participants’ internal control. Participants saw a decrease in off-task behaviour and
an increase in attending behaviours after taking part in the intervention (Redfering & Bowman, 1981). Redfering and Bowman (p. 127) concluded their paper
by stating, “A logical extension of this kind of research is to explore the levels of
generalization to various classroom settings,” and yet here we are, more than 30
years later, as this is just beginning to be studied.
Zylowska et al. (2008) studied the effects of mindfulness meditation training
on the symptoms of ADHD in adolescents. Participants self-reported decreased
ADHD symptoms and high satisfaction with the training (Zylowska et al.,
2008). Participants in Bögels, Hoogstad, van Dun, de Schutter, and Restifo’s
(2008) study, which utilized MBCT-C as an intervention with youth presenting
with different externalizing disorders, reported similar results. One drawback
of the intervention noted by adolescents who wished to participate was that it
interfered with out-of-school activities, suggesting that implementing it within
the school curriculum could increase its acceptability and feasibility (Zylowska
et al., 2008).
Singh et al. (2007) utilized the Meditation on the Soles of the Feet program with
a group of seventh-grade boys exhibiting aggressive behaviours. Aside from observing reductions in their aggressive behaviours, participants reported being more
relaxed, increased impulse control, better focus, and improvements in sleeping
(Singh et al., 2007). The effects of this intervention were maintained for more
than one year (Singh et al., 2007).
effects of mindfulness on development of the whole child
Mental health professionals, educators, and others are increasingly interested in
supporting the development of the whole child. Schools are beginning to spend
time developing the emotional intelligence of the students, not just focusing
on academics. Mindfulness meditation and other mindfulness-based practices
traditionally value the promotion of empathy, creativity, prosocial relationships,
and compassion for self and other, the development of which will help children
throughout their lives.
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Mindfulness for Biopsychosocial Spiritual Health
Mendelson et al. (2010, p. 992) state, “Enhancing regulatory capacities and
responses to stress among at-risk youth has the potential to facilitate development
of core competencies that will promote a range of positive emotional, behavioural,
and academic outcomes,” thus positively impacting development. Mindfulnessbased practices such as interventions, philosophies, and support for growth and
healing are part of the so-called third wave of therapy approaches (Abrams, 2007;
S. Hayes & Greco, 2008).
Bootzin and Stevens (2005) investigated a multimodal intervention for treating sleep disturbances in adolescents who had previously undergone treatment of
substance abuse. One of the components of treatment was MBSR. The results of
the study suggest that participants who completed at least four sessions showed
improved sleep, which contributes to enhanced positive health, social, and emotional outcomes (Bootzin & Stevens, 2005).
Flook et al. (2010) found that a mindfulness-based curriculum improved
executive functioning in third- and fourth-grade students. Flook et al. contend
that introducing mindfulness-based practices in elementary school may be a viable and cost-effective way to improve students’ socio-emotional, cognitive, and
academic development.
Research on the utility of mindfulness meditation among youth with learning disabilities found that participants reported decreases in anxiety, increases in
social skills, and improved academic performance (Beauchemin et al., 2008). The
rationale for choosing mindfulness meditation as the treatment modality in this
study was “because it is designed to reduce stress, promotes self-understanding and
acceptance, discourages negative self-evaluations (i.e., cognitive interference), and
cultivates a stable and nonreactive present-moment awareness” (Beauchemin et
al., 2008, p. 38). Although the results of the study were positive, any conclusions
on the relationship between mindfulness meditation, anxiety, academic performance, and social skills remain tentative due to the methodological weaknesses of
the study. This research study lacked a control group, had a sample size of 34
students, and lacked long-term follow-up (Beauchemin et al., 2008).
Kabat-Zinn (1994) suggests that mindfulness practice may lead to a greater
sense of trust and closeness with peers and others as well as an increased ability to
approach stressful events as challenges rather than threats. This may be related to
an enhanced ability to view thoughts and emotions nonjudgementally and to not
react impulsively (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). The research reviewed in this article suggests
that mindfulness training contributes to aspects of character that produce balanced
children and youth, reflected in greater creativity, greater prosocial behaviour,
better psychological health, and healthier peer relationships.
Mindfulness for Increasing Self-Awareness and Self-Esteem
Coholic, Lougheed, and Lebreton (2009) examined the benefits of holistic
art-based group work with boys and girls aged 8 to 12. According to Coholic
Mindfulness for Children and Youth
et al., the exercises and group processes followed in their study align themselves
with mindfulness meditation practice. In order to make the practices and ideas
meaningful to children, the researchers shortened and simplified the exercises and
integrated an active and sensory focus (Coholic et al., 2009). Although it is not
possible to draw conclusions from this study, it does suggest that the children who
completed the group felt more positive and were coping in a more productive way
(Coholic et al., 2009). This is similar to the findings in Wall’s (2005) study, which
saw participants experiencing increased feelings of well-being and self-awareness,
and less reactivity.
Lau and Hue (2011) showed similar results in their study utilizing a mindfulness-based intervention with adolescents in secondary school. Participants reported
a significant increase in personal growth as a dimension of well-being after the
mindfulness training. Lau and Hue utilized a control group in their study, which
did not see the same increases as the mindfulness-based intervention group.
Mindfulness with Children from Different Cultures
Napoli et al.’s (2005) paper provides some support for utilizing mindfulnessbased practices with diverse populations. They suggest that mindfulness skills can
help reduce stress related to racism and oppression in children and youth. Facilitators can teach mindfulness techniques in a way that is secular, thus increasing
the acceptability of these practices to diverse populations (Napoli et al., 2005).
Further support for the use of mindfulness-based practices with child and youth
populations from diverse cultures can be found in the premise that Tai Chi and
MBSR provide strategies for students to be less reactive to emotional cultural
triggers and increase their awareness of self and others (Wall, 2005).
Liehr and Diaz (2010) studied mindfulness interventions on depression and
anxiety with children from Caribbean and Central American countries. The results
suggested that mindfulness-based activities were enjoyed by the participants and
depressive symptoms decreased (Liehr & Diaz, 2010). Lau and Hue (2011) used
a mindfulness-based intervention in their study with adolescents in Hong Kong
secondary schools and saw a significant reduction in depression and an increase in
well-being. These studies suggest similar findings. Positive support for mindfulnessbased interventions is being found in different areas of the world.
Feasibility of School-Based Mindfulness
Napoli et al. (2005) state, “Research indicates that incorporating stress reduction programs into the school curriculum is associated with improvement of
academic performance, self-esteem, mood, concentration and behavior problems”
(p. 105). According to Ritchhart and Perkins (2000), “for generations, educational
philosophers, policy makers, and practitioners have decried the mindlessness of
schools and their tendency to stifle creativity, curiosity, and enthusiasm while
nurturing passivity and superficial learning” (p. 28). In contrast to mindlessness,
mindfulness is a facilitative state of mind that encourages increased creativity,
flexibility, use of information, as well as retention of information (Ritchhart &
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Perkins, 2000). Not only does mindfulness training in the schools have the potential to improve the psychological and physiological health of students, it also
has the potential to change how and what students learn in a meaningful way.
Burke (2010), in her review of the current research into the use of mindfulness-based approaches with children and youth, found that mindfulness-based
interventions were acceptable and feasible to the populations studied, and no
studies reported any undesirable effects. As early as 1973, mindfulness meditation was being utilized in schools to increase field independence and reduce test
anxiety (Linden, 1973). Here we are 39 years later, still discovering the benefits
of mindfulness in schools.
Semple et al. (2010) reported that a group of inner-city minority children that
were typically hard to reach enthusiastically embraced MBCT-C. Participants
in their study stated MBCT-C was helpful in both home and school environments (Semple et al., 2010). Further research reviewed in this article supports the
feasibility of implementing mindfulness-based practices in school settings. The
implementation of a mindfulness-based program need not be time consuming.
Research suggests that 10 to 15 minutes of mindfulness practice daily or a few
times per week may result in students that are more successful and create a more
peaceful learning environment (Benson, 1975; Fisher, 2006). There is compelling
research to suggest that people who regularly practice mindfulness meditation
“experience less anxiety and depression, have more positive outlooks, and have a
greater sense of calmness, awareness, and sense of control,” which reinforces what
it has to offer to students and schools (Selhub, 2007, p. 5).
mindful learning
Fisher (2006), in describing his own experience using a brief meditation with
10-year-olds in an inner-city school states, “This small investment of time I found
had a marked effect in calming the class and focusing them ready for learning”
(p. 151). Benefits of a student-centred classroom that utilizes mindfulness as a part
of the daily curriculum have been found, ranging from students who are creative
and critical thinkers and who are able to apply learned material to new and novel
situations, to classrooms that are calmer and more peaceful (Napoli et al., 2005).
Langer and Moldoveanu (2000) assert that practitioners of mindfulness see improvements in their attention, which results in a greater enjoyment of the task at
hand and improved memory, factors that are helpful for students.
In support of mindful learning, Langer (1993) argued “that not only should
learning be fun on its own terms, but that learning or gain that is not fun is
mindless” (p. 43). Mindfulness encourages the taking of multiple perspectives and
embraces the realization that there is not one optimal perspective—rather, all may
be valid (Langer, 1993). Shapiro et al. (2008) argue that despite the importance
of sustained, focused attention in learning, educators rarely teach how to achieve
this in the majority of educational settings.
It is suggested that the better we think we know something the more mindlessly
we view it (Langer, 2000). According to Langer (2000), by teaching children in
Mindfulness for Children and Youth
absolutes, we prematurely close the door on alternative possibilities. This does our
children a disservice. The facts that children and adolescents are taught are not
context-free. If we teach children mindfully and they learn mindfully, they are
able to hold multiple perspectives and embrace ambiguity.
support for mindfulness training in schools for children and
Twemlow et al. (2008, p. 17) state, “schools often over focus on the use of
verbal techniques both to teach and [to] control students’ behavior.” In contrast,
they suggest using action in schools to make ideas real. Mendelson et al. (2010)
found that mindfulness-based approaches were acceptable to students as well as
teachers, and their results saw decreases in stress responses such as rumination,
intrusive thoughts, and emotional arousal.
Barnes et al. (2003) successfully implemented a transcendental meditation program with 25 high school students. This suggests that it is feasible and acceptable
to implement a school-based stress reduction program to improve the physical and
psychological health of students and thus reduce negative behaviour.
Schools that teach mindfulness-based strategies take the view that students and
teachers directly influence one another and are partners in learning (Napoli et al.,
2005). Benefits of teaching mindfulness in school include an increase in creativity,
greater cognitive flexibility, and better use of information to improve memory for
retention of teachings (Napoli et al., 2005). With increasing diagnoses of depression, anxiety, ADHD, and other externalizing disorders, there is also increasing
demand on the teachers’ knowledge and skills. Including mindfulness training in
the school curriculum may save teachers time in the long run because students
may be able to deal with situations more effectively, resulting in fewer in-class
interruptions, thus allowing teachers to teach and students to learn.
Saltzman and Goldin (2008) advise proponents of mindfulness to clearly articulate to school administrators and other stakeholders “the secular and universal
nature of mindfulness” (p. 158). By being proactive in providing a clear explanation of what mindfulness is and is not, teachers can alleviate any misperceptions or
confusion before the program can be negatively affecting. As suggested by Saltzman
and Goldin (2008), for children to enjoy the greatest benefits of mindfulness and
to ensure acceptance of the program, it is crucial to educate and inform school
administrators, teachers, and parents about mindfulness practices.
universal treatment and prevention programs
Mindfulness is amenable to universal prevention programs because it focuses
on universal vulnerabilities in children and youth rather than specific problems
(Bögels et al., 2008). It is a strength-based intervention rather than one focused on
pathology. A universal mindfulness program would involve the whole school. This
results in less stigmatization and labelling than would pulling students out for a
targeted program. Universal programs are a cost-effective method to deliver schoolbased programs that are preventative rather than remedial (Farrell & Barrett, 2007).
Kim Rempel
Farrell and Barrett (2007) reported on the use of a universal prevention program
in preventing anxiety and depression in school-age children. Farrell and Barrett
argue that universal programs present a positive approach to social-emotional
learning and focus on enhancing the strengths of all children. Napoli et al. (2005)
suggest implementing mindfulness training into the physical education curriculum to teach children, from the beginning of their school career, ways to manage
stress and focus attention. Because many children and parents never seek clinical
interventions for emotional disorders, providing universal prevention programs in
schools is a way to reach this population. Given the high prevalence rates of anxiety, depression, and other disorders, prevention offers an attractive cost-effective
alternative to intervention.
A further benefit of a universal prevention program is that it is perhaps less
threatening than a therapy session where there may be a need to explore traumatic
or painful experiences. Instead, the teacher presents it as a group intervention that
may benefit everyone by helping them learn to manage life stressors and feel better about themselves (Coholic et al., 2009). Mendelson et al. (2010) speak to the
positive benefits of a program that focuses on building capacity in children and
youth rather than focusing on symptomology or disorders. In teaching mindfulness
techniques to students, it is possible to implement the mindful practice of reflection
at every level of the school system (i.e., the student, the classroom, and the school).
While mindfulness-based practices show promise and a universal school-based
approach appears to be an ideal approach to implement, there is limited support
in the literature for universal treatment programs. L. Hayes et al. (2010) reviewed
treatment programs for adolescent depression and found that, with universal
prevention/intervention programs implemented in the school, gains were not
maintained at follow-up. However, many of the studies reviewed had methodological weaknesses, one particular flaw being the use of self-report questionnaires
designed to measure clinical change being utilized with nonclinical participants
(L. Hayes et al., 2010). When viewed in the light that 10 students need to receive
targeted intervention to prevent 1 case of depression, universal prevention programs become more justifiable (L. Hayes et al., 2010).
future directions in research
As the research reviewed in this article suggests, there is increasing support
for integrating mindfulness training into education curriculums for children and
youth. The body of research devoted to mindfulness with children and youth is
expanding; however, there is still little devoted to education specifically. More
research into the effects of mindfulness training for children and youth is needed
to tease out how and why mindfulness benefits the whole person and why this is
a valuable addition to existing curriculums.
This final section includes three recommendations for future research, drawing on what has been identified as shortcomings in the existing studies (Brown
& Ryan, 2003; Burke, 2010; Shapiro et al., 2006; Toneatto & Nguyen, 2007).
Mindfulness for Children and Youth
These recommendations relate to increased methodological rigour, a wider range
of outcomes studied, and the study of best practices for integrating mindfulness
training into educational settings.
Methodological Rigour
It is necessary for future studies to identify what type of mindfulness activity
is being utilized. For example, some studies utilize mindfulness-based movement
such as yoga or Tai Chi, while others might focus on the breath in a mindfulnessbased meditation. Research that examines each mindfulness-based activity separately will increase understanding of the contributions of each. This will add to
the existing research and assist in developing a better idea of what best practice
with children and youth will look like.
The assessment tools used to assess mindfulness in children and youth have
not always been adequately tested for use with this population (Burke, 2010; Lee
et al., 2008). It is important to develop assessment tools specifically for children
and youth and test their reliability and validity. The only measure that has been
normed and adapted for use with children is the Child and Adolescent Mindfulness Measure (Thompson & Gauntlett-Gilbert, 2008). Having a mix of qualitative
and quantitative studies is another way to gain a richer understanding of how and
why mindfulness training works.
There are few true experimental studies investigating the use of mindfulness
training with children. Many of the studies reviewed here are quasi-experimental
at best. For mindfulness training to become an evidence-based intervention, it is
crucial that future studies randomly assign participants to an active control group.
In addition to random assignment, longer-term follow-up assessments are important to determine whether the benefits of mindfulness training are sustained over
time. Finally, use of larger samples will potentially allow for the generalization of
results to the greater child and youth population.
The studies reviewed here provide a broad range of outcomes; however, there
is the potential for even greater exploration of the phenomenon being studied.
It is possible for researchers to study related phenomena instead of limiting the
study to one aspect of psychological functioning. Instead of focusing only on the
relationship between mindfulness and anxiety, researchers could also look at the
relationship between mindfulness and depression, as well as between mindfulness
and externalizing behaviours. Studies could also assess outcomes in behaviour and
physiological functioning.
Researchers are just beginning to identify the benefits of mindfulness training
for children, and the likelihood of researchers finding other benefits is quite high.
Only by expanding the outcomes being measured and hypothesizing on a wider
scale will the full value of mindfulness training be understood. An expansion of
outcomes may require the development of new tools to measure the phenomena
under investigation accurately.
Kim Rempel
Ideally, future research should endeavour to investigate factors and processes
applicable to the education settings of children and youth. An important question to explore is what conditions are most conducive to optimizing the effects of
mindfulness training in a school setting. For example, is mindfulness practice at
the start of the day more beneficial than mindfulness practice after lunch?
Another area of interest to curriculum developers might be how the amount
of time spent in mindfulness practice affects outcomes. Research results thus far
have shown mixed results, with some finding that increased time in mindfulness practice is beneficial and others showing no significant difference (Biegel et
al., 2009; Toneatto & Nguyen, 2007; Valentine & Sweet, 1999). Research into
whether students who engage in mindfulness practices at home as well as at school
experience any greater benefit are of interest.
The teaching and study of mindfulness training in schools comes with questions
about how best to implement it in a proactive and meaningful way. For example,
where does it fit in the curriculum and who should teach it? Research suggests
that teachers of mindfulness-based activities should have a regular, personal, and
mindfulness-based practice in order to speak with any authority and answer the
questions of students (Kabat-Zinn, 2003; Semple & Lee, 2008). It would be
disingenuous to teach mindfulness if one does not practice it.
One final note—there have been individuals for whom mindfulness-based practices are contraindicated. There may be individuals with certain mental health concerns, personality disorders, psychosis, major depressive disorders, or traumatic stress
for whom mindfulness-based practices like meditation are not appropriate (Shapiro
& Carlson, 2009). However, as research into mindfulness-based practices grows,
more evidence points to the benefits of practice when these factors are not present.
The potential benefits of integrating mindfulness-based training into school
settings are significant in regards to effects on cognitive, emotional, interpersonal,
and spiritual domains. Research reviewed here suggests that mindfulness-based
practices can have a positive impact on academic performance, psychological wellbeing, self-esteem, and social skills in children and adolescents. There is evidence
that mindfulness-based training in schools is feasible and acceptable to those who
have participated in it.
While the research in this area continues to grow, there is a need for welldesigned, methodologically sound research to guide educators and administrators
in integrating mindfulness-based practices into the school setting. Support for
mindfulness training is increasing; however, larger randomized control trials are
necessary to provide greater empirical support. Farrell and Barrett (2007) state,
“prevention programmes in schools offer much promise in targeting the prevalence
of emotional disturbance in young people—ongoing research and practice will
Mindfulness for Children and Youth
inform us of the actual value and impact of this approach over time” (p. 63). The
work of researchers such as K. Schonert-Reichl at the University of British Columbia as well as Patricia Jennings and Trish Broderick at Penn State University are
providing further support for the role of mindfulness in the education of children.
There is a strong argument for implementing mindfulness practices into the
school curriculum. Not all the evidence may be in; however, there is convincing
circumstantial evidence that mindfulness practices improve the well-being of many
who utilize them. Children deserve to experience life positively, and society has
a duty to provide them with the skills and strategies to manage life’s more challenging moments. Mindfulness may be one way to provide this.
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About the Author
Kim D. Rempel graduated from the Graduate Centre for Applied Psychology, Athabasca University,
and is now a Canadian Certified Counsellor practicing in Williams Lake, British Columbia. Her
main research interests are interventions and issues affecting the psychological health of children
and youth.
Address correspondence to Kim D. Rempel via e-mail: <[email protected]>